Monday, 7 November 2016

Thatcher and Brexit: voters sometimes get it wrong

Here’s an article not to miss: Larry Elliott in The Guardian on a study into the hollowing-out of manufacturing in Britain. From a peak of 8.9m jobs, industrial employment has fallen to 2.9m jobs over fifty years. That trend and, in particular, its harshest period in the 1980s, has cost the nation dear. Indeed, the authors maintain they can quantify the cost as between £20bn and £30bn a year.

A lot of the cost is in benefits being paid in communities where there is no longer a hope of a job, together with the corresponding loss in income tax revenue.

Back in March 2009, I wrote about the town of Conisbrough in South Yorkshire, where I had lived and taught for seven months in 1971. It was a mining village and, when I was there, it had a population of 16,000. By the time I came to write about it, the mine had closed and the population had fallen to 10,000. Within that population, close to 30% were either unemployed or classified as disabled or ill, often a way of veiling unemployment. A thriving community had been broken.

Cadeby Main, Conisbrough. Drew its last coal in 1987
So Larry Elliott’s article struck a chord for me. What I hadn’t realised was the extent of the harm the destruction of Britains industrial base had caused. That figure of £20-30bn represents about half of the government’s deficit. We have been through six years of devastating austerity policies that have generated mover poverty, ostensibly to reduce the deficit, and yet we could have avoided half of it just by not wrecking our industrial bedrock back in the 1980s.

Who was in government at that time? When the worst damage was done? When mining was effectively ended? Why, the sainted Margaret Thatcher. The woman still revered today, and certainly supported by a sufficient numbers then to give her healthy majorities in parliament at election after election. That fixation among voters has left a legacy of deep economic damage and, as a result, far more acute suffering now as we struggle to recover from the crash of 2007–8.

It seems that the electorate doesn’t always get things right.

That’s why I smile wryly when people tell me that we who oppose Brexit have to go with the will of the people expressed in the referendum of 23 June. My view is that Brexit too is going to have devastating economic consequences.

Many are saying that the catastrophe forecast by the Remain campaign in the runup to the vote hasn’t materialised. But those forecasts were always nonsense. They were propaganda weapons used by ministers, in particular David Cameron and his Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, who lacked the energy or the intellectual horsepower to make a cogent case for remaining in the EU. Instead, they resorted to fear tactics, and failed.

Economic damage doesn’t manifest itself in a few weeks or months. It can take years. Inflation hasn’t taken off yet but we can already see the upward pressure caused by a falling pound. Unemployment has barely moved but we can see a big increase in businesses delaying investment decisions. We don’t yet have to contend with the loss of trade that our actual departure from the EU will entail (let’s remember that we are still members for now) but we’re already seeing Narendra Modi, Indian PM, pressurising Theresa May to relax visa restrictions in return for new deals – Brexiter claims that Britain will be negotiating from a position of strength are due to be sorely disappointed.

Incidentally, there is a delicious irony in May offering concessions on visa regulations for India – a move I favour, incidentally – since many Brexiters claim that leaving the EU would allow the UK to strengthen border controls.

But the biggest point of all is that the damage to the economy will be similar to what we experienced when Thatcher wrecked our manufacturing base. It wasn’t immediately obvious how deep the harm would be, though many warned about it. Now, thirty years on, we’re living with the consequences and the study Larry Elliott talks about quantifies them for us.

In thirty years’ time Britain will be living with the consequences of Brexit on top of the legacy of Thatcher. The pain will be all the greater.

And you’re telling me I’m being anti-democratic to oppose going down that route because 52% of the population against 48% think we ought to?

Voters have a democratic right to make a mistake and I raise no objection to that. However, the Thatcher experience shows us that they sometimes get it disastrously wrong. Then we all have to pay the price, even if we were in the minority. In the Thatcher case, and I expect the Brexit case, even if weren’t born at the time. 

So why shouldn’t those of us who don’t agree keep saying No?

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